Cricket-fighting matches, Flower-Bird-Fish and Insect market, Hongqiao train station, Huangpu River, Lujiazui district, Old Shanghai Teahouse, old town Shanghai, People's Square, Pudong, Puffy coat, Shanghai, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai street hustlers, Shanghai Urban History and Development Museum, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, Shikumen houses, The Bund, The Oriental Pearl Tower, Walnuts, Xintiandi
March 25-28, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)
Even though I was not feeling 100% in Shanghai (I was fighting off a cold/flu bug) we were still able to get out and see many of the sights in this tremendously historical and influential city. By the time we arrived in Shanghai, Kristin and I had become numb to the largeness of China’s cities. Large parcels of land are being redeveloped with new high rise living communities on the outskirts of Shanghai. But then again we had been seeing this all across China.
On our daily commutes into the heart of Shanghai we would usually first drop into our host Lauren’s artist studio. Her studio is in the heart of the historic Xintiandi area of Shanghai. There was a clear demarcation line here, where on one side of the major street there was the “new-old” (this was a phrase Kristin and I started using to describe historic sections of cities and buildings in China where they have rebuilt everything so that it is new but looks original/historic) Shikumen residential architecture, and on the other side of the street still stood the original Shikumen houses. The Shikumen (Stone Gate) houses are a combination of Chinese architecture with western features, built around the late 19th century.
It was marvelous to walk around the streets and alleys of this old Xintiandi area.
But we had to wonder just how much longer these historic houses were going to be allowed to stand as we saw signs of impending demolition and approaching redevelopment in the neighborhood.
There was, however, a definite feel of a younger, even hipster-like, artist community in the area which made us hope that the original Shikumen houses would remain for some time. But you just never know, when the government can come in at any time and decide to raze and rebuild.
It was a short trip on the metro from Lauren’s studio to downtown. Walking around the center of Shanghai we were once again surrounded by the hustle and bustle of an international metropolis, just like we had felt in Hong Kong. We were in one of the largest cities in the world and the explosion of business, shopping, and tourism was all around us.
We made a beeline to the world famous Bund, Shanghai’s historic riverfront promenade lined with 19th century European-style buildings. On our way there, we walked down a major boulevard, which felt just like we were walking in New York City.
There were major department stores, a huge Apple store, people on roller skates, tourists from all around the world on shopping sprees, major hotels, restaurants of all types, and hey, what’s going on over there? Oh, just a major fashion magazine shoot. Everyone was walking with a distinct purpose in their step. And for many of them that purpose, like ours, was to walk towards the Bund. Once at the Bund, the view is monumental. On one side of the Huangpu River stand the classic historical European buildings of by-gone days when Shanghai was one of England’s conquered territories.
On the other side stands the impressive, mind-blowing, and ever expanding skyline of modern Shanghai otherwise known as the Lujiazui or Pudong district.
In between runs the Huangpu River, host to world-class shipping commerce, with all sorts of cargo ships coming and going at all times of day and night.
The juxtaposition is awesome, and at once you understand why this is one of those places in the world that is a must see. The large, wide, elevated river walkway along this side of the river is nothing short of first class.
We walked up and down sharing the views with a multitude of people all snapping pictures in all directions. We made a point to experience this scene not only in daylight but at sunset and into the evening too. Each time was better than the last time. It was truly an urban highlight in our trek.
On Brian’s recommendation for a unique (but knowingly over-priced) cultural experience, we crossed to the other side of the river via the trippy Bund Tourist tunnel, an automated tram ride that runs under the river, and supposedly represents the Chinese idea of good fun. The tram ride was indeed impressive and fun, but in a super-hokie way. As we went through the tunnel in our little, driverless capsule, the lights in the tube changed and they projected the story of the evolution of the earth (or something). I would compare it to an old Disneyland ride from back in the 60’s.
Knowing China, I’m sure they have plans to update that tram ride soon.
We got off the tram ride still giggling from the experience, and popped up on the other side of the river in the middle of a ultra modern Shanghai, the eye-popping Lujiazui financial district in the Pudong area. Three of China’s tallest buildings are located here, skyscrapers of amazing designs and shapes. It was equally impressive to watch other skyscrapers nearing completion.
Our purpose here was to experience one of those world-class skyscrapers with an unique twist, and so we made our way to The Oriental Pearl Tower.
We lined up for the elevator to take us to the viewing platform where we were to experience a test of nerves. What was it? A see-though floor at the very top of this skyscraper. Yup! Walk out on to that floor and you’re looking down from 263 meters (863 feet) high — don’t ask me how many floors that is, it’s a tower, not a multi-floor skyscraper. Yikes! Don’t look down if you have a fear of heights.
After the initial shock, and it is a pretty weird sensation, you know you’ve got to take some pictures. For many it was just too much as they just stood back in horror and hugged the wall. Sure we got into it because everyone around us was getting into it — if they weren’t they were hugging the wall looking for the nearest exit to get off that platform. Overall it was a blast!
On the next floor up we were able to walk around in a comfortable enclosed, opaque solid floor, viewing deck and take in the entire city of Shanghai. In every direction there was a detailed plaque showing and explaining each vista. We were grateful to have chosen the perfect beautiful day to experience these amazing views!
On our way out we almost skipped the Exhibition of Shanghai Urban History and Development Museum at the base of the tower — but we are sure glad we didn’t! The museum was a winding maze, chock full of great information on the development of Shanghai from early times, and gave great insights into the lives of the rich and poor in this ever-evolving city. Don’t miss it if you have an opportunity to go.
The next day, we got a late start and made our way to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, Kristin’s favorite first stop in any city. Shanghai’s version is tremendously large and educational, with an impressive scale model of Shanghai’s downtown.
We lost track of time there and had to be kicked out at closing time. Again, if you ever want a great way of getting a overview of a city and its history, this is a must. By the time you walk out of here you are set to explore Shanghai with a first class understanding and knowledge of the city.
With evening setting in, we decided to head back to the Bund to see it in a different light.
Back to the Bund meant back to the hustle and bustle of the teeming crowds. And with that also came the hustle of the street hustlers. One hustle, which became comical, occurred when I separated from Kristin for more than 5 minutes. I was always approached, usually by a woman, asking “massage by beautiful lady? Yes? Come, come. Massage by beautiful lady?” Well I guess a beautiful lady would be better than a plain one — and I am pretty sure what they were offering was no ordinary massage. At one point I wanted to walk further down the Bund and take a few more pictures. Kristin was tired and decided to sit and wait for me. Well in the time I walked down and back, about 10 – 15 minutes, I must have been approached half a dozen times. I guess there is no shortage of beautiful lady masseuses in Shanghai!
But beware of more sophisticated hustles! Lauren and Brian had given us a heads up on a classic one, where a young couple, acting as tourists, approaches you and asks if you can please take a photo of them with their camera (which is fine, because in touristy areas we too would ask someone to take photos of us). Well then this young couple asks if they can return the favor. Yeah, no problem. Being all friendly now, they then ask if you would like to join them in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, because they had wanted to do it earlier but needed at least four people for the ceremony. Well if you bite, and go to the tea ceremony, by the time its all done there’s a hefty fee to pay — we have heard people being charged in the hundreds of dollars! Sure enough, when we were wandering around People’s Square, right on cue a young couple approached us and went into their spiel. We, being warned of the hustle, played along for a while, then turned the tables on them and said “Hey, we’ve got a tea ceremony too! You want to come?” They declined, and we just laughed and walked away.
With our usual delusional sense of how close things looked on the map, we decided to walk from the Bund through old town Shanghai to have tea at one of the historic tea houses and then make our way over to the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. Huh, you say? Insect market? Why would they have an insect market? Well it so happens that one of the pastimes in Shanghai is to have cricket-fighting matches. What!? You heard me right. They have cricket-fighting matches, much like cock-fighting in other countries. No way. Well we didn’t believe it either and wanted to check out the place where people buy the crickets.
We made our way into old town Shanghai in the dark and unfortunately, as it is all around China, it’s slowly turning into “new-old” old town Shanghai.
Slightly disappointed, we still meandered our way around and found one of the old tea houses, aptly called Old Shanghai Teahouse (and yes, recommended by Lonely Planet). We walked into the tea house on the second story, and found an establishment that had probably not changed in a hundred years, with old furnishings, a wood floor and decorated with antiques from another era.
It was completely empty, but we needed a break, so we sat down and ordered two different specialty (i.e. very expensive) teas and some dumplings. Having already been through several tea ceremonies by this point in our trek in China, we had a pretty good idea of how to serve it ourselves. We enjoyed the hot tea on this cold night, and the dumplings were truly delicious. Dumplings were quickly becoming our favorite food in China.
It seemed that every city and region had its own unique dumpling and we were loving each and every one of them.
We left the tea house and charted our course to find this famous Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. It was getting late but we thought we would give it a try. Who knows, there might be some of those cricket matches going on (we were so curious!). As we walked though various dark narrow streets and alleys we stopped several times to ask for directions.
We had our trusty Lonely Planet book which had the name of the market in Chinese, so all we needed to do was point to it and we would be pointed in the right direction. It was here that it dawned on me just what we had been doing in all the cities we had visited so far in China. Whether it was ignorance, innocence, or just the adventurous spirit we had always had with us since the start of our trek, we had been walking dark, unknown streets and alleys, way past closing time of normal stores, without giving a second thought to the looks and stares of the local people who were just going about their everyday chores.
What were they thinking as they noticed these two foreigners walking their back streets, taking pictures of their every day life and surroundings. “Are they lost? And what are they doing taking all those pictures?” To us, walking among the locals, eating at their places, seeing their shops, and dodging the trishaws, bicycles, scooters, and cars became second nature.
It was all new to us and exciting to be around. I turned to Kristin and said, would we be doing this in some large city we didn’t know in the US? I don’t know, probably not. And here we were, totally comfortable with it and never did we feel we were in danger. The realization hit us and we just said wow.
I don’t know how many people we asked that night for directions to the market, but we were always greeted with a smile and nod and pointed on our way. We finally found someone who was able to communicate to us that unfortunately the market had closed for the day, and so we turned our attention to catching the subway back to Lauren and Brian’s home.
The next day we once again set off to find this Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market, and see what it was all about. Along the way we were distracted by Kristin’s quest for a puffy coat. Three months into the trip, Shanghai was the first place we had experienced consistently cold weather (apart from a few NZ mountaintops and glaciers). We had been piling on all our layers, hats and gloves, but Kristin had enough of the cold weather and was coveting these puffy coats everyone else was wearing — and looking very warm and happy in them. So with that revelation (and a look-ahead to sub-zero temperatures on our upcoming trip to Mongolia) we were now on a quest to buy one for her. Not wanting to pay a fortune, we ducked into several stores having a sale only to find the coats either still too expensive or not in Kristin’s size. Much to our surprise Kristin’s size in China was extra extra large! WHAT?! It was XXL in Chinese sizes because Chinese women tend to be teeny tiny. Their extra large would be the equivalent of small in USA women’s sizes. So as a side note, anyone who wears anything bigger than a medium in USA sizes, good luck finding clothing items in China. Finally in a small out-of-the-way shop having a clearance sale, we found a XXL puffy coat that was slashed down to bargain basement price because they hadn’t been able to sell it. Really?! We’ll take it! And so Kristin finally found her warm puffy coat bliss.
Successfully finding the bargain of our trip we once again set off to find the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect market. We tracked down the market, and yes they do have crickets for sale! All sorts of different sizes and shapes of crickets.
There were many Chinese men there sizing them up and choosing carefully. Choosing to see who might be the next cricket champion? I guess so.
The market was amazing, with a great variety of insects, birds, fish, frogs, and other small creatures.
It was, however, a bit depressing to see all these animals caged up in the tiniest of containers awaiting an unknown fate. It would have been interesting to see one of these cricket fights, but our time was getting short and we had to move on (plus we had no idea where they actually took place).
It was our last day in Shanghai, and we had just enough time to zip over to the People’s square area to visit the wonderful (and free!) Shanghai Museum.
The building and grounds are beautiful.
But it is the artwork in the different sections of the museum that is amazing.
Some of the sections include furniture.
We could have spent hours in there, but once again we got herded out at closing time and headed back home for our last evening with Lauren and Brian.
Is Shanghai one of the great cities of the world? Most definitely. Overwhelming and large? Yes! Too much to see? Oh yes. Our stay in Shanghai was wonderful, not just because we were taken in by friends but also because they gave us great insight into Chinese culture, and all that Shanghai has to offer. Brian took great joy in turning us on to some of his favorite eateries and in explaining many of the Chinese customs. And Lauren is just a wonderful spirit that has found a real home in the Chinese community. Our last day, Emma even showed up and it was a happy reunion of friends.
We thanked Lauren, Brian, and Emma for all that they had done for us, caught a taxi to the Hongqiao station, and caught the bullet train to Beijing.
By the time we had jumped onto that train my health was just about back to 100%, but for Kristin it was the start of a respiratory illness that would take an even worse turn as we made our way into Beijing